A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is a rousing, gospel-style jazz piece by Billy Taylor. It’s one of my favorite pieces in The Real Book because I was fortunate enough to study piano with Taylor and I got to hear him play this many times, often while standing right next to the piano!

If you’re on a jazz gig and want to “wake the audience up,” then play this. It’s got a great beat and the gospel sound of the chords and melody will get your listener’s attention in a big way!

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Billy Taylor: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

Billy Taylor Trio (video)

This is Billy at just about the time I met him, in the early 1980s with Victor Gaskin on drums and Curtis Boyd on drums.

Nina Simone: The Very Best Of Nina Simone

John Legend & The Roots: Wake Up!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is different from the rest of The Real Book in that it’s a true gospel-style song. It has a straight 8th note rock feel and the chord progression comes out of the gospel and spiritual tradition.

The religious songs known as “spirituals” aren’t heard much in mainstream public media, but they were a driving force in creating the musical culture that shaped American music in the 20th century, including jazz. In fact, Duke Ellington himself composed two spirituals: “Come Sunday” and “Jump For Joy.” You’ll also hear hymn- and spiritual-influenced music in the arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton and the other creators of early jazz.

The chord progression to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is based around the F major tonic chord, and unlike in most jazz tunes, it’s a pure triad, not a major 7th, 9th, or 13th. (The Real Book does have the tune ending on an F6, which can be seen as a harmonic “bridge” between jazz and the folk/spiritual tradition. In any case, an F triad would work fine here as well.)

I love how Taylor immediately goes to the A7 chord on beat 3 of the first measure. That dominant III chord, along with the infectious rock/gospel and the melodic syncopation at that spot, instantly gives the song a feeling of joy and liveliness that’s sure to put a smile on everyone’s face when you play it. Definitely watch Billy Taylor play it himself, in the video I’ve linked to above.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Billy Taylor: How Jazz Musicians Improvise
Billy Taylor interviewed by Charlie Rose (video)

Billy Taylor, 90th birthday interview
An in-depth, insightful interview with Ted Pankin that covers much of Taylor’s career

Billy Taylor’s Jazz Piano Book
This book will give you an excellent sense of the stylistic development of jazz piano. Taylor put in lots of personal stories and anecdotes as well as some musical examples that you won’t find anywhere else. (Have you ever heard of Clarence Profit, who was an influence on Art Tatum? If not, then this book is for you!)

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free: Journey Through The Real Book #167

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

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